The Sociology of Suds

Overtown gets clean at Mister Lee's

Mornings at B & B's Laundromat in Overtown are dominated by the old women, afternoons by younger women, children, and the occasional stray male. But early Sundays belong to the men. "They call it Men's Morning," laughs Lee Bethune, his South Carolina accent still strong after 46 years living in Miami. "It's the only day these working men got to do their laundry, if they don't have a woman to do it for them."

Few actually know his last name anymore, or that it is one of the Bs of the laundromat's title. Everybody just calls him Mister Lee. Time was, there were eight laundries like Mister Lee's within a five-block radius -- back before crack cocaine and the I-95 overpass put O-town under. Now it's just him and two or three others. He's the last old-timer left, the granddaddy of suds around these parts. In 1968, he and a partner (Mister Brown, now deceased) plunked down $30,000 to buy the business from Mister Silverman, who got out of the business just when the civil rights movement began to wash through Miami.

Mister Lee is 71 years old now and wears pretty much the same outfit every day: gold-rimmed glasses, shiny black boots, blue jeans, and a guayabera with four pockets on the front, which he keeps full of quarters. He is the change machine, and also, when in a generous mood, the source of a stray 25-cent piece for the children constantly milling around the miniature arcade at the front of the laundromat. Mister Lee answers the pay phone when it rings, putters around with the machines, or dozes on the back bench next to the television. He also collects the rent for landlords of the apartments upstairs and behind the shop. Meanwhile half of Overtown flows in and out -- some to do laundry, others to leave or collect messages from other residents, who use the place the way lawyers and bankers a few blocks away on Brickell Avenue use e-mail and the power lunch.

Jonathan Postal
At Mister Lee's place, the daily life of Overtown goes 
round and round like clothes in a dryer
Jonathan Postal
At Mister Lee's place, the daily life of Overtown goes round and round like clothes in a dryer

By late afternoon or early evening, one-eyed Big Willie would come by in his green Miami Hurricanes shirt to collect a few dollars, which he used to buy lottery tickets at the corner store. (Since Big Willie passed away in November, Lee has had to make other arrangements.) The lottery is Mister Lee's main vice these days, although if you ask him how he's kept his health all these years, he's likely as not to reply with a hearty cackle: "A good steak, a good drink of liquor, and a goo-ood woman!" In truth, he figures his vigor is due to quitting his pack-a-day Viceroy habit twelve years ago, regular doctor visits, and working every day. Having watched his wife pass on a few years after retiring as a nurse at Jackson Memorial Hospital, Lee figures retirement is akin to a death sentence. "Retiring?" he jests. "What's that? I might start slowing up in another five years, but retiring? I'm going to leave here scratching and hollerin'."

Mister Lee's is also a reliable stop on the hand-shaking, baby-kissin' trail of countless would-be kings, as well as a succession of ambitious police chiefs doing the obligatory neighborhood walk-through before retreating to the safety of headquarters downtown. It's a place that has seen Overtown at its best and its absolute worst. Now a new transformation proceeds uneasily through the ruined streets outside Mister Lee's door. Entrepreneurs, speculators, dreamers, and swindlers, all attracted by the low cost of land just blocks from Biscayne Bay, are beginning to flood the neighborhood. Hip clubs like I/O and Space 34 (or whatever it's calling itself this week), focaccia sandwich shops like Gili's, these are pressing in at the edges of Overtown, promising a wave of urban renewal as profoundly altering as desegregation. A sign the city has tacked onto a lamppost across from the laundromat declaims: "Miami Has a New Face."

The slogan is unintentionally ironic and sad. For in 30 years of dumping cash and empty promises into Overtown, not one politician nor his attendant bureaucracy has managed to make a significant difference for the people left to rot there while the jobs disappeared, housing crumbled, and families disintegrated. The recent, well-publicized scandal in the city's Community Redevelopment Agency is only one example of how this occurred. Destitution in the inner city has paid out big time for Miami's bustling poverty industry, but not so much for the actual poor folk. So it is with a uniquely Miami blend of skepticism and hope that most long-time Overtown residents view the changes coming their way. "Since the Seventies, this is the first time I've had any indication they really want to do something," remarks Mister Lee, leaning back on his bench to stretch his long legs. "Every other time they'd do a good song and dance and get nothing done." That's the hope.

"The fear is that once it's developed it'll be too expensive for anybody here to live," he continues. "It's lousy, but it's progress. Progress never suit everybody. Never did."

Mister Lee drives in from his home in Liberty City every morning just before the 6:00 a.m. opening time. He parks his truck and walks across NW Third Avenue to unlock the metal gate in front of the door. Within minutes, the place is humming with electricity and the early risers saunter in with the first load of the day. Soon, Larry or Ringo, or sometimes Lenita, arrives with the coffee and a day's worth of gossip and bawdy jokes. "My favorite time is the mornings," Mister Lee confesses. "I like people around me doing things. Even if they not doing laundry, people stop in and leave messages for somebody else. I'm here all day long and they know I'll probably see 'em."

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